One of the ways in which religious and political groups keep control over their members is by erecting high barriers that distinguish the ‘in’ crowd from those outside. These barriers are not, of course, physical barriers but they act in just as an effective way. They show those inside an organisation, as well as those outside, where the boundaries lie. In extreme groups, the person inside will think little about those who are not part of the group because they are conditioned to look only inside for their social support, emotional needs and source of teaching and guidance. The people outside are in some sense ‘infidels’ or heathen. Either way they are not worthy of any attention or support.
Such boundaries are of course to be regretted when they undermine cohesion within a society. Multiculturalism, as we have suggested recently, does little to challenge what are effectively ghettos. But a greater evil can be seen when individuals are pushed out, for whatever reason, from the tightly knitted security of a religious group. In the process called ‘shunning’, an individual is expelled by all those who had, till then, been the source of social and emotional support. This is a cruel and barbaric practice and not infrequently leads to depression or even suicide. The more an individual had obtained his identity from being part of the group, the greater the sense of total desolation when he is cast out. Shunning, either as an implied threat to all members of a group or as an actual punishment, is something that a blog like this should name as utterly contemptible. It certainly should be outlawed in any group which identifies with Jesus, the man who did so much to welcome the ostracised and the shunned in Jewish society.
In my reflecting on the implications of shunning I have begun to see that it is much worse than an act of hate. When we hate someone, we are consumed by an intense dislike. However much we may dislike the individual we still recognise that he exists and will continue to exist. Shunning takes hatred to a different level. Within the act of shunning there is an implied pretending that he/she has somehow ceased to exist. The person concerned has become such a threat to the organisation, that we have to treat him as a non-person so that the equilibrium of the organisation be not disturbed. If he could be made to disappear, then that would be the best solution. The person who makes the decision to shun someone is probably not fussy as to how they should be made to disappear, even if actual murder is, inconveniently, not a practical option as far as the law of the land is concerned.
I hope that I am not exaggerating when I suggest that the act of shunning is form of psychological murder, the desire that someone should cease to exist. All feelings, all sympathy and the memory of former communication with them is to be withdrawn. This total turning the back on another human being is shocking and reprehensible. My studies on cultic-like churches have brought me face to face with the victims of shunning and the effect on them is far more torrid than if they had just incurred the hatred of an individual. In primitive cultures we see the effect of being hexed by the local witch-doctor. When someone actually dies after such a hexing curse, we speculate that the practitioner had somehow managed to destroy the invisible bonds that link an individual into their community, thus rendering them defenceless and their ‘soul’ totally vulnerable. Shunning is the equivalent in the West of being ‘hexed’, even if our Western culture and upbringing affords us a greater level of psychic defence than is found in primitive societies. We are of course dealing with approximations of what seems to be happening in these actions, but I hope my reader can at least follow my line of argument.
I have mentioned the experience of being shunned by individuals at Trinity Church, Brentwood. I am sure my readers have other experiences of this horror to add to this discussion. The crossing over the road to avoid speaking to someone, forbidding your children speaking to their children; all these are far more cruel than insulting them to their face. To tell someone by your actions that you would prefer it if they disappeared off the face of the earth is a pretty terrible thing. And yet this is the daily experience of tens of thousands of ex-members of religious groups of all kinds across the world. The group, in order to protect its purity, has to deny a voice, or even existence, to those who criticise it, or worse still decide to abandon its version of truth.
As a final comment, I would want to say to anyone who belongs to or considers joining a religious group, whether Christian or otherwise, how does the leadership deal with those who leave? Do they practice shunning? Do you really think that your spiritual welfare is going to be furthered if you get caught up with having to, along with everyone else, shun ex-members? Do you really want to be a person who practises ‘spiritual murder’? There is no other way to describe such a horrific denial of Jesus’ command to love our enemies. There is also no better way to destroy our integrity as human beings than by forcing us to become part of a baying mob who wants to psychologically murder or destroy someone for the ‘crime’ of having left our group.
If you find your way to this page, you might wish to watch my Youtube of my lecture given in Stockholm for the International Cultic Studies Association in June 2015. Type Stephen Parsons 2015 in youtube search